V4 turning heads in Europe’s refugee crisis

Border fences and often nasty rhetoric in the east, and a warm welcome in the west. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, opinions on both sides of the continent have been complex, and now the divisions have become more prominent, shedding an uneasy light on the V4 and on European integration.

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Only a few months ago, very few people knew the name of the picturesque Hungarian town, where the Danube takes a dramatic turn in the Visegrad. Equally few considered the V4, an alliance of central European countries originally created to collectively strengthen their chances of joining the EU, a force to be reckoned with, in the EU.

But that has all changed with Europe’s migration crisis, with more than a million migrants having made their way to the continent last year, leaving the EU struggling to find a common policy to cope with the unprecedented influx. Even though diplomats from the V4 countries argue that their cooperation has been strong before, 1 the migration crisis and the V4’s distinctly different approach to tackling the issue has put the group in the spotlight like never before.

It has emerged as a “bad word.” 2 “Western” EU member states overwhelmed by refugees and migrants, have come to see “easterners” as lacking in solidarity with other, and even heartless for refusing to take people in, particularly – as the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico suggested 3– Muslim people.

Border fences vs. “Mutti”

Last year, the very different approaches toward the refugee crisis within the EU boiled down to a simple stand-off: while German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed refugees, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán exploited the migration crisis for domestic purposes, 4 and erected a border fence to keep them out.

As one EU diplomat said, speaking to the V4Revue on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter openly, historical reasons have led eastern countries to react defensively and protect themselves, while westerners have been more prone to accept groups at first. At the policy level, as the crisis deepened and V4 members advocated for reinforced protection of the EU’s external borders, the priority for many westerners – mainly Germany, the preferred destination for most migrants – was burden-sharing.

“My feeling was that we were talking on two different levels. In the east, we focused on how to protect ourselves, and get things under control. The west, and especially Germany, focused on taking people in, and seeing what they can do with them,” reflected another EU diplomat from a V4 country, again on the condition of anonymity, due to the issue’s sensitivity.

“The socio-economic fundamentals in these four countries are very close, and we never had an influx of migrants as such. It is a new phenomenon for our societies, time is needed to adjust,” argued the same V4 diplomat, echoing a political talking point often used by eastern member states against the idea of relocating refugees across the EU.

V4 leaders and diplomats argue that predominantly Christian and largely ethnically homogenous societies should not be expected to take in large number of Muslim groups from the Middle East over a short time (even when their countries were only asked to host a few hundred people). The diplomat also recalled, that the west is still struggling with integrating people who arrived decades ago in a controlled, managed and legal fashion – again, using this as an argument against taking in refugees.

When it suddenly all went sour

EU officials interviewed for this article say the turning point for the V4 was when the EU Commission, the bloc’s executive, came out with a proposal last May 5 and September 6 to relocate refugees on a mandatory quota basis from Europe’s main entry points for those seeking international protection – Italy and Greece (and Hungary, which it refused) –  without consulting member states.

That upset easterners, especially when last September, the majority of member states outvoted 7 the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, on a decision that would practically force them to take in refugees. Poland’s previous government led by the conservative Civic Platform, already very much in campaign mode before October’s elections, went along with the majority, but maintained reservations.

Some argue in Brussels, that the introduction of the quotas was when it all went sour, and a common European approach to the migration crisis slipped away.

“Quotas raised the visibility of the V4. They were not a very fortunate start, and because they came from the top level of the EU, they were very divisive,” said the EU diplomat from the V4. Subsequently, Hungary and Slovakia challenged the decision at the EU’s top court.

“The rhetoric [on migration] is not as nasty in the west as in the east. The messages are not constructive, regardless if we agree with their position or not,” warned Paul Ivan, senior analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center (EPC), highlighting that the problem that caused concern for the EU was what seemed like the obstruction of common decisions, rather then the V4’s guiding principles.

In fact, as it became clear that the mandatory relocation scheme wasn’t working, with only a few hundred refugees absorbed from Greece and Italy out of the 160,000 agreed upon, and the flow of people to Europe not abating, more and more leaders echoed what the V4 had been arguing since the summer: that protecting the bloc’s external borders should be the priority. 8

It is probably no coincidence that it was the former Polish PM, now EU Council Chief Donald Tusk who already warned fellow conservative politicians at the European People’s Party Summit in Madrid last October: “We cannot pretend any longer that the great tide of migrants is something that we want, and that we are conducting a well thought-out policy of open borders. The truth is different: we have lost our ability to protect our borders, and in this sense, our openness is not our conscious choice, but a proof of our weakness.” 9

During the last months it has become clear that without a clear European solution to the migration crisis, especially the failure to relocate people from Greece and Italy, and the inability to stem the influx, has led to a change in discourse and finally, EU policies.

“The V4 did change the discourse of the migration crisis, and focused it on external border controls, so the debate progressively shifted into that direction,” said an EU official close to the V4 discussions.

A false debate but a political reality

But the perceived image of the V4 as a reluctant group of central Europeans who are obstructing European cooperation shed some uneasy light on the integration of the eastern countries, which entered the EU in 2004. “The most shocking declarations came from eastern and central Europe. It could prove to be damaging for these countries, as talks start on the next EU budget “ said Paul Ivan.

In a clear frustration with the V4 bloc, Western European leaders, like Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, suggested that in reprisal for a lack of solidarity in sharing the refugee burden, the V4 should get less EU funds. 10

In Febuary the Italian leader said 11 that Rome would play hardball in the upcoming 2020-26 EU budget talks in retaliation for the V4’s anti-migrant stance. “Those nations owe a debt of gratitude to EU member leaders who took risks and sometimes also lost their jobs to defend their admission into the bloc in 2004,” Renzi said.

“It was their [westerners] gut reaction,” a V4 diplomat commented on the threats. He added that “it is a false debate, but it is also a political reality,” meaning that while V4 countries do not see the link between the two issues, they will nevertheless have to deal with comments like Renzi’s.

Diplomats from V4 countries argue that it is unfair to link the two issues, and that cohesion funds and other aid from the EU, essentially from richer net-contributors to the EU budget, served V4 countries just as well as western companies, which benefited from various projects carried out in the V4. “We don’t owe each other anything,” Hungary’s Viktor Orbán recently 12 said, in reaction to those threats.

“These countries [V4] to some extent feel like the losers in the integration process, that is why they are less inclined to solidarity,” argues Daniel Bartha, director of the Budapest-based Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy.

“Western Europe has a negative role in unsuccessful integration, the distancing of eastern Europe is partly their responsibility,” he added, citing examples of eastern wages being depressed to attract western investment and infrastructural developments that benefit western companies.

Conflicting visions

Underlying frustration with the V4 was reinforced when the nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, won the Polish Parliamentary elections in October. While diplomats and analysts say there is no common ideological base emerging in the V4 group, the PiS government quickly challenged media freedoms and constitutional oversight, raising concerns in Europe that the “illiberal” model of Viktor Orbán had found a powerful follower in Poland. 13

“We don’t have the same vision of Europe as Eastern European states do,” said a senior EU official on the condition of anonymity. “Enlargement was absolutely necessary, but we didn’t deepen the political and cultural ties, and we did not have an intellectual debate about what it means to be European,” he said.

Another EU official told the V4Revue behind the scenes that “in the new Europe, western politicians don’t look at this region as former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl – who thought these two parts of Europe needed to grow together – did, but as a liability.” He added that when geopolitical changes take place in the region, along with the weakening of traditionally western anchors, such as the EU itself, eastern Europeans find themselves in a vacuum and tend to stick together.

But that alliance also incorporates differences among V4 countries that are bound to bubble to the surface again, once the heightened media attention around the eastern European position on migration, what one diplomat called, the “hype,” is gone.

“V4 countries differ a great deal. Their development path and their midterm strategic goals are different, and their relationship with Russia complicates the situation,” Bartha argues, adding that the issue of renewing sanctions against Russia will inevitably weaken V4 cooperation.

With Slovakia also being a member of the Eurozone, and Hungary and Poland very much divided on Russia, the fault-lines are also running deep within the group. And although the EU is hoping to stop the influx of asylum seekers through a deal with Turkey, the distribution of refugees among member states remains a hotly disputed issue that is bound to keep the V4, still opposing a mandatory resettlement of people, in the limelight.

Notes:

  1. Joint statement of the Prime ministers of the Visegrad Group countries on the 25th anniversary http://www.visegradgroup.eu/calendar/2016/joint-statement-of-the, accessed 17 March, 2016.
  2. Big, bad Visegrad, Economist, 30 January 2016 http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21689629-migration-crisis-has-given-unsettling-new-direction-old-alliance-big-bad-visegrad (accessed 11 April 2016) .
  3. Slovakia vowes to refuse Muslim migrants, http://www.dw.com/en/slovakia-vows-to-refuse-entry-to-muslim-migrants/a-18966481, accessed 17 March, 2016.
  4. A calculated non-action miscalculated Hungary’s migration crisis, http://visegradrevue.eu/a-calculated-non-action-miscalculated-hungarys-migration-crisis/ , accessed 08 April, 2016.
  5. European Commission makes progress on the Agenda on Migration, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-15-5039_en.htm, accessed March 17, 2016.
  6. Refugee Crisis. European Commission takes decisive action, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-15-5596_en.htm, accessed March 17, 2016.
  7. Nikolaj Nielson & Eszter Zalan, “EU forces ‘voluntary’ migrant relocation on eastern states,” euobserver, September 22, 2015, https://euobserver.com/migration/130374, accessed March 17, 2016.
  8. Relocation and resettlement – State of Play, European Commission, March 16, 2016, http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/european-agenda-migration/background-information/docs/20160316/relocation_and_resettlement_-_state_of_play_en.pdf, accessed April 11, 2016.
  9. Speech by President Donald Tusk at the EPP Summit in Madrid, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/hu/press/press-releases/2015/10/22-tusk-speech-epp-congress-madrid/, accessed March 17, 2016.
  10. Francesco Guarascio, “No refugees, no money – Italy’s Renzi threatens EU’s east,” Reuters, February 19, 2016, http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-europe-migrants-italy-idUKKCN0VS01D, accessed March 17, 2016.
  11. “Italy threatens cuts for anti-migrant east,” news.com.au, February 23, 2016, http://www.news.com.au/world/breaking-news/italy-threatens-cuts-for-antimigrant-east/news-story/7c76bc327d72baffab8a9a838c49b4de, accessed March 17, 2016.
  12. Annual state of the nation address by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wNjQ-6VKB0, accessed March 17, 2016.
  13. Lorenzo Berardi, “The Polish Aftermath: Media legislation in the Visegrad Group,” V4Revue, March 2, 2016, http://visegradrevue.eu/the-polish-aftermath-media-legislation-in-the-visegrad-group/.
Eszter Zalán

Eszter Zalán

Eszter Zalan is a reporter at the Brussels-based EUobserver.